Originally written on Blog So Hard Sports  |  Last updated 11/17/14

An Optimistic Look at the Wizards and the Eastern Conference

While many teams in the NBA have used the draft and free agency to add to their core and get better, there are several teams that appear to be doing the exact opposite. Particularly in the Eastern Conference, there are a handful of teams that are either outright rebuilding or potentially trying to tank for the vaunted 2014 draft class. The chase for Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker is going to open up an opportunity for some new teams to be in the playoff conversations. - See more at: http://blogsohardsports.com/wizards-2/the-eastern-conference-is-wide-open-for-the-wizards/#sthash.jYwuWzYY.dpuf

While many teams in the NBA have used the draft and free agency to add to their core and get better, there are several teams that appear to be doing the exact opposite. Particularly in the Eastern Conference, there are a handful of teams that are either outright rebuilding or potentially trying to tank for the vaunted 2014 draft class. The chase for Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker is going to open up an opportunity for some new teams to be in the playoff conversations.

Enter the Washington Wizards.

After a dismal start to the season as John Wall sat on the sidelines looking on, the Wizards turned things around with a strong 2nd half of their season after a healthy Wall, and his improved jumper, returned to the court. While this seems to be their MO the last few seasons — be terrible all year and then bring it on strong at the end of the season — this time it feels different. Washington appears to be a team heading in the right direction, and with the additions of Otto Porter through the draft, Eric Maynor through free agency, and bringing back Martell Webster, the timing is right for the Wizards to make some noise in the Eastern Conference.

There are still a lot of free agent moves to be made and the possibility of some big trades still looms, but the second half of the top 8 in the EC is wide open. On top of that, I believe there are some question marks around some of the top 4 teams as well. While I don’t believe Washington’s goal should just be to make the playoffs, the prospects of being able to land at least that 8th seed are looking much more probable. We all know that the Wizards front office set the goal of making the playoffs prior to last season stating it would be unacceptable to be in the lottery again, and we all know how they held people accountable for not living up to that goal (/sarcasm). Nobody wants to see more heads rolling.

Last season, the Wizards finished 12th in the Eastern Conference just ahead of Cleveland, Charlotte, and Orlando. The Magic are going to be bad, the Bobcats are not going to be much improved, and don’t expect Anthony Bennett to lead the Cavs to a top playoff spot. Of the three teams who finished ahead of Washington but still missed out on the playoffs, which team really improved a significant amount?

The 76ers have clearly gone into a rebuild mode after trading away Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel. They are not going to be competitive and should not be on anyone’s radar for getting to the playoffs. If Toronto doesn’t add a big name guy, they are going to be at best a fringe playoff contender, but more likely sitting on the outside looking in. Detroit has a solid core of young guys which they added to by selecting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but they will need to land a solid point guard if they are going to want to make any noise in the playoffs. Out of all the teams mentioned so far, Detroit has the best roster to sneak into the playoffs.

That leaves us with the top 8 in the conference. Here is how the playoffs rounded out last season in the East:

1.    Miami Heat
2.    New York Knicks
3.    Indiana Pacers
4.    Brooklyn Nets
5.    Chicago Bulls
6.    Atlanta Hawks
7.    Boston Celtics
8.    Milwaukee Bucks

While I don’t see much change in the top 5 teams, outside of possible ordering, those teams are not set in stone at the top. Miami will be there no question, and the Knicks have enough scoring power to stay in the top 5, but did they really get better by trading for Andrea Bargnani? That remains to be seen. The Pacers reached an agreement with David West and have the opportunity to surround their team with some more role players if they can trade Danny Granger, or just keep Granger. The Nets will be the team to watch at the beginning of the season after acquiring Kevin Garnett and Paul Piece to go along with their already star studded squad. And then you have Chicago, who managed to grab a 5 seed while missing their best player, former MVP, Derrick Rose. If a healthy Derrick Rose returns, which everyone is expecting, the Bulls should be a top 4 team in the East.

This is where things get interesting though. I believe the 6th, 7th, and 8th seed are wide open. The Boston Celtics are in full on rebuild/tank mode so they will without question drop to the bottom portion of the conference. The Atlanta Hawks have 9 players who are free agents and the direction they go in could go either way. They drafted a new PG in Dennis Schroeder, so if they are unable to land a big name free agent to replace Josh Smith who is likely gone, they could easily fall into a rebuild scenario as well. They would still have Al Horford on the roster, but even he can’t do it by himself. The Bucks are another team who are teetering on the edge of trying to compete but are very close to being bumped from the playoffs as well. They shipped out J.J. Redick for two 2nd rounders, and their other two guards, Brandon Jennings (RFA) and Monta Ellis (UFA) aren’t locks to return to the roster. Milwaukee drafted a project player in Giannis Antetokounmpo who will not be making an impact any time soon. The rest of their roster certainly doesn’t strike fear into the heart of anyone, except for referees who may be terrified of playing heads down thumbs up.

There is a purpose for all of this, which leads me to this question: Out of all of these team’s rosters, would you take any of them over the Washington Wizards?

Atlanta — Milwaukee — Cleveland — Detroit — Philadelphia — Toronto — Boston — Charlotte — Orlando

This may be my superb homerism kicking in here, but outside of Cleveland and Detroit, I wouldn’t even consider it. And to be honest, I am taking Washington’s roster over the Cavs and Pistons anyhow. Some of those teams can just be eliminated from the list because they don’t have a shot at the playoffs (Orlando, Boston, Philadelphia). So if things play out as projected, there will be three playoff spots to compete for between Washington, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, Toronto, and Charlotte. If I had to only pick one of those teams to come out on top, my money is on the Wizards. Here is how I see things playing out (and yes, this is an EXTREMELY early playoff projection list, and further off-season moves could easily change this):

1.    Miami Heat
2.    Indiana Pacers
3.    Chicago Bulls
4.    Brooklyn Nets
5.    New York Knicks
6.    __________ (I feel comfortable tentatively penciling the Wizards in here)
7.    __________ Cleveland/Detroit/Atlanta
8.    __________ Cleveland/Detroit/Atlanta

At this point — health permitting — Washington IS a playoff team. They shouldn’t even have “the 8th seed” in their vocabulary when discussing this seasons goals. Barring some big moves landing big name free agents in the Eastern Conference, there are going to be three to four spots up for grabs and the time is now for the Wizards to take advantage of it.

In the NBA, being a middle of the road, perennial 7th or 8th seeder is almost just as bad as being a lottery team. You are not good enough to make noise in the playoffs, but you are too good to land a top prospect. You land in some sort of NBA purgatory if you will. That is the reason that you see many of the middle of the road teams rebuilding/tanking this off-season with next year’s incoming draft class expected to be so talent packed. And as you can see by just perusing some rosters, that has presented quite the opportunity for some teams to make a jump.

The Wizards’ shouldn’t have just making the playoffs high on their list. They should be shooting for the middle to top of the Eastern Conference with a chance to actually do some damage in the playoffs. With a little luck in the health department, the Wizards could be on their way to being a consistent playoff team and with a few more pieces, possibly a big splash in next year’s free agency, they could be looking at becoming a real contender over the next several years.

 

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